How to Talk to Girls At Parties (Review)
Before this review begins I have a small confession to make: upon the first reading, I didn’t really enjoy How to Talk to Girls at Parties. I found the art distracting, the girls a bit wonky looking and the story too simple to do anything other than just to breeze through. I quickly finished it and sat back thinking ‘Well, that was sweet, but it lacks Gaiman’s usual richness’ (this was me being immensely snobby and pretending to be a fine connoisseur of graphic novels, in case you were wondering).
I logged on to Gaiman’s website and found the original short story that the graphic novel was based on. Here I found the lyricism and rhythm I associate with Gaiman’s work. The way he writes often makes the reader want to read aloud the story and share it with those around them and if you’ve heard enough recordings of Gaiman reading his own work you understand how he would read it out, where he would pause and speed up, with the effect that I often hear his voice in my head when I read his prose. There is a distinction here though; I have never heard Neil Gaiman’s voice when reading his comics (The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch being a notable exception-probably because this seems to me to be one of his most personal graphic novels written).
How to Talk to Girls at Parties won the Locus Award for Best Short Story and one can understand why. It’s adaptation as a graphic novel makes sense as these days it seems all things Gaiman are being put out in various forms whether they’re radio adaptations, digital versions of his more obscure work in the form of the Humble Bundle, or graphic novels (speaking of which, I’m sure that soon we’ll be hearing about a graphic adaption of “I, Cthulhu”, also on his website, soon).
The story’s premise itself is simple enough: two young boys accidentally end up at the wrong party, meet odd girls and escape before they end up being irrevocably changed.
After enjoying the short story (also known as actually reading the words, something I may have skimmed when I first picked up the graphic novel), I revisited Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s version of it and found it much more enjoyable the second time round. Their use of watercolours adds a tint to each page that is both somber and soft; there is a hint of menace and immense possibility in the wishy-washy sky as Enn and Vic walk to the party. Each set of pages has an overall colour tinting it, from light green to pale yellow to reds and purples that warm the pages, suffusing them with a form of nostalgia that is hard to pin down to any one element on the page. The colour permeates the story’s words as well, infusing each of Enn’s encounters with the strange girls at the party, drawing us into the seemingly present moment in which those conversations are taking place while at the same time reminding us that Enn is recounting all this from the future, from his actual present.
The characters are each imperfect and confused about their presence, whether it’s at the party like Enn, or on a wider scale of cosmic misplacement as in the case of the girls. Like all good sci-fi, this short story forces us to consider our position as finite beings on this planet and highlights the lack of communication that bars proper understanding between the sexes, even if it takes this breakdown of communication into a new direction. Enn is the embodiment of anyone who has felt awkward around the opposite sex, worrying about the seemingly innocuous task of simply talking to a girl in order to ‘get’ anywhere with her while Vic is the stereotypically good-looking and confident best friend who tries in his own way to assuage his friend’s fears over talking to girls. Enn’s gripe over how when as children we start in the same way and then the girls suddenly become “in a very real sense, young adults” while the boys get left behind, was a moment that made me chuckle- having sometimes felt older than some of the boys I’ve met in my life myself.
The girls themselves are transient in this story, each obviously odd and yet dropping profound observations about humans that are all too relatable even though they tend to go over Enn’s head. One of my favourite lines is from the second girl Enn meets at the party who despairs over being “embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium”. Who hasn’t had that sort of an existential crisis before (although it may not have been so eloquently stated)? The ending of the graphic novel is a bright crescendo of swirls and rays, of nostalgia and the fantastical future, allowing for the reader to be taken on a cosmic journey along with Enn from the now questionable safety of a human kitchen on Earth.
Though I initially questioned the presentation of this graphic novel I later found myself appreciating Bá and Moon’s illustrations and the subtle clues they had put in about the girls’ otherworldliness in their surroundings. I understood the story’s implications better, suddenly more was at stake upon my second reading and there were more ideas to ponder about including the fragility of human relations, the yearning to be understood, and of course the power of poetry because “you cannot hear a poem without it changing you”. The graphic novel is still an easy read, even the second time round, but it’s a valuable one and I would recommend it to any fan of Neil Gaiman.
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